Is the 9-5 Dig Killing Public Archaeology ( #pubarch )?

Posted on December 11, 2013


What if I told you that before the first trowel goes into the ground for your public archaeology (#pubarch on twitter) dig you probably have excluded half the population? Would you be shocked? Would you be surprised? Has this ever crossed your mind?

About a month ago I wrote a post on diversity and archaeology, more specifically the lack of it in UK professional archaeology, and how location might be a factor in attracting audiences e.g. if you don’t have a car to get to a dig you won’t be able to participate. In this post I continue that trend by looking at how we schedule our public archaeology digs and how this affects what sort of audiences we attract. In the UK there are roughly 63 million people, as of the 2011 census.  As of September there are roughly 30 million Brits in employment. Some quick math tells us that roughly 48% of the population is employed, both full and part time. That means that if you are hosting a #pubarch dig in the UK and it runs from about 9am to 5pm during the week (I have yet to hear of a dig that didn’t run from roughly 9-10am to 4-5pm) you have effectively eliminated half the population from participating in your public archaeology.

It also means that the only people that can participate in archaeology are unemployed, students (school groups or university), retired, or affluent enough to not have to work. Hmmmm- students, retirees, and the well off, also known as the trifecta of public archaeology participants and who you are most likely to find on a public archaeology dig. I know there are many, many, many, many, many, many, public excavations that bring in other types of participants. I use the trifecta as a general reference of who are most often found on #pubarch excavations not as a declaration that they are the only people found on #pubarch events (please don’t leave angry comments, these are just generalizations).

I know these numbers are fuzzy and not perfect. Some areas have higher unemployment than other areas. Part-time employment technically means that one could participate during the week for some of the time. However, if one takes into consideration that most children and all the way to young adults (ages 5-22ish) are in school/university for most of the year then actually only those schools/classes that are invited/can afford to visit a site participate and every other students is excluded. Even during the summer, when school is out, many digs require parent supervision to participate. So if the student’s parents are working it is unlikely that they could participate. Considering that 84% of the population is under the age of 65 it is likely that the majority of the population is unavailable to participate during the week. These people will only be able to participate during the weekends/holidays i.e. days off of work and school (if your school/class does not get invited to participate in a dig).

Now ask yourself how many #pubarch digs have you been on that are only on the weekends? I can think of a few but most run throughout the week. I can even think of a few #pubarch digs that only run during the working week (Mon.-Fri.). I won’t name anyone but you know who you are. In a best case scenario a #pubarch dig runs throughout the week and weekend for a grand total of 28% (2/7ths) of the time which is accessible to those who work/are dependent on those who work. Not horrible but defiantly not great.

Are we really surprised when most people that participate in archaeology tend to be older and/or from more affluent backgrounds (see my previous post)?


I have mention this to several other people and we have had discussed ways to change this. An obvious one is to just hold events on weekends. Of course then you miss out on your captive audience of school classes that you do invite to participate. The solution that we came up with is the Dig-B-Q. Named by David Connolly-actually, the first name he came up (other worse ones too, like bbcavation, but we don’t talk about them). The idea is simple, move the times of the digs to a later time to capture people after they are off work (1-8pm, maybe?). Of course this presents its own set of problems:

  • who wants to do archaeology after work when you are tired?
  • competition with prime time TV shows
  • the need to drag the family out on a school night

….to name a few.

Thus the need to possibly change the format into a more festive atmosphere like a BBQ to bring people out but still get them involved in archaeology. Daylight should not be an issue as most #pubarch is conducted in the summer when the weather is nice and there is more sun. In Scotland we end up with the sun setting at 10pm and 17hrs of sunlight during the summer. Not everyplace will be blessed (and cursed in the winter) with such daylight but most places will have light till at least 7 or 8pm. We are hoping to test this out this summer and I will report back if it actually makes a difference in terms of those that participate. This may turn out to be a failure but we won’t know till we try. At the same time we should be discussing how our current methods of conducting public archaeology tends to eliminate half of the potential participants before we even start to dig.

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